Bulls rookie Joakim Noah sits Indian style in the basement of his cavernous Deerfield manse. And even this must be documented! The French media find highly sedentary moments such as this one (i.e., our conversation—me on a chair, Noah on his basement floor) photoworthy. Cameras madly snap throughout; video rolls. A sample exchange: "What are the virtues of wearing the number [click, click] 13?" I ask.
"Number 13 has [click] always been my number," Noah responds. "I wear it for this lady who is kind of like [click] my other mother. In New York, she took care of me during [click] the summertime when I was living with this guy called [click, click, click] Tyrone Green. She's a [click] great lady. That was her [click, click, click] number."
By birthright, Noah, 23, is French cultural nobility, the son of Yannick Noah, international pop star and former tennis god—the lone countryman since 1946 to win the French Open. In part to free him from the burden of his bloodlines, Joakim's mother, a former Miss Sweden, moved him from Paris to New York City at age 13; he learned American basketball in Hell's Kitchen and Harlem, where his slight build inspired the nickname "Sticks" and his pedigree "The Noble One."
The coterie of French print and television journalists has been beckoned to Deerfield by Le Coq Sportif (translation—"the sporting rooster"), the French sportswear company with which Noah recently signed a six-year endorsement deal. He pushes product smoothly and sartorially, clad in the company's basketball shoes, their laces loosely threaded and Velcro straps undone. The media camp out in his house, which is furnished mostly with oversize (even considering his 6-foot 11-inch frame) beanbag chairs and enormous Samsung televisions—one set with an alert for college basketball, a sport whose ethos he infectiously embodied at the University of Florida as recently as last March.
His three years in Gainesville brimmed with joie de vivre (or, in American sportswriter parlance, "flamboyance," "charisma," and "brashness"), complete with dizzying victory dances, vitriolic crowd taunts ("You're ugly!" the preferred—and unfair—insult), exquisite team basketball, and much on-court triumph. "I like winning more than anything else," he says. "That joy of winning is something that I'll always cherish." To prove it, he eschewed pro offers and returned to Gainesville for his junior year—and a second consecutive NCAA basketball championship—despite significant financial risk (millions of dollars lost thanks to a slightly deflated statistical season that weakened his draft position).
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp
In 2007, the Bulls plucked him from Florida with the ninth pick in the NBA draft, an event that he attended resplendent in a seersucker suit, clip-on bow tie, and hair so untamed that a small animal might have burrowed within—that joie de vivre on full display and ready for passage to Chicago. "That suit was funky," he says. "When I came out of the shower and put it on, I was like, 'I'm going to kill it tonight!'"
On the basketball court, his game veers more toward New York City grit than Parisian elegance. The standard commentary accompanying a Noah highlight goes like this—from Comcast SportsNet Chicago studio analyst (and former Bull) Kendall Gill: "He does all the intangible things that you want a player who isn't very skilled offensively to do." Noah is best in a scrum—when a gaggle of airborne giants flail for possession of the ball. Appropriately, his first professional basket originated in such a throng. Entangled with a Denver Nugget defender, Noah leaped for a missed shot, tipping it first with his right hand and then with his left, the ball rolling along the side of the rim before gently touching the backboard with enough force to propel it into the basket. About this, he says, "I played pretty well that game, but we got smashed. I'd rather play three minutes and win the game."
And although new to Chicago, the Bulls, and the hazing in professional basketball (veteran teammates dispatch Noah and other fresh arrivals to fetch doughnuts from inconvenient locations and expect them to remain silent), Noah's personality bubbles forth undaunted. At the team's Fan Appreciation Scrimmage in October, his pitch-perfect karaoke version of "Sweet Home Chicago" (another blithe bit of rookie hazing) scored rollicking applause from the thousands in attendance for its puckish winking, bobbing, swaying, and bursting showmanship. It was Noah gleefully unrestrained, ready for citywide embrace.
The fact that it was displayed via JumboTron made it bigger still.
Besides, I ask, how exactly does a rookie earn respect?
The French photographers stir. Click, click, click. Noah responds immediately: "Be who you are, and I think people will respect that."
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp